How to use modal verbs in English?

Learning May 04, 2024

Hello and welcome to all English language learners, new and old! If you are ready to step up your English skills, then buckle up because we are about to take a closer look at modal verbs and how to correctly use them.

What are modal verbs?

Modal verbs can be seen as special helpers of the English language that help change the meaning of the sentence.

Modal verbs are used to indicate things such as ability, permission, advice, etc.

The most common modal verbs are: “can”, “could”, “must”, “have to”, “should”, “might”, “may”, “will”, and “would”.

Let us have a look at an example of how modal verbs are used in a sentence.

For example, “I can run” shows ability, whereas “You should study more” shows someone giving advice.

How to use “can” and “could” properly? 

“Can” and “could” are the go-to words used for expressing ability or possibility.

When you need to tell someone, you are capable of doing something, or when you want to ask for permission you use “can”.

For example, “I can speak English fluently” or “Can I have some more ice?”

Now, when you want to be more polite or talk about past abilities, you use “could”. 

For example, “Could you please pass me a plate?” or “When I was in school, I could run very fast”.

If you want to learn more differences between can and could, please check " Difference between can and could " article.

When to use “must”, “have to”, and “need to”?

These three amigos are used for obligation and necessity.

When something is essential, you say, “I must finish my essay”. If it is more of a requirement but not as urgent, then you would say, “I have to pass my English test”. 

Now, when you want to emphasise the necessity, you say, “I need to read more to better my vocabulary”.


Are “should” and “ought to” used the same?

Yes, both “should” and “ought to” can sometimes be used interchangeably because they are similar in meaning. Both these modal verbs offer advice, suggestions, and recommendations. You can think of them as your English language counsellors.

Here are some examples of how they are used and sometimes interchangeable. 

“You should eat more vegetables” or “You ought to eat more vegetables”. “You ought to practice your English-speaking skills more often” and “You should practice your English-speaking skills more often”.

Something to keep in mind, both modal verbs are giving friendly guidance but “ought to” is more formal than “should”.

When do I use “may”, or “might”?

When you want to talk about possibility and permission, you use “might” and “may”. “May” is slightly more formal and polite, whereas “might” suggests a lower possibility. 

For example, “You may excuse yourself” or “It might rain today”.

What are the rules for using “will” and “would”?

When you want to express future hypothetical situations, intentions, or requests you use these dynamic duos to do so. 

Here is how to use them in a sentence: “I will help you with your English homework” or Would you like some coffee?”

Learning how to use modal verbs in English will take time, but when you do master it, it is like unlocking a superpower in your English language. You ought to embrace them, and you might just sound like a native English speaker!

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